Tom Bender © 28 June 1998

Do places have souls?

There is life in all Creation. There are wombs in space that give birth to galaxies and stars. The hearts of stars sing like bells. The rocks under our feet thrumm with messages from within and around the world. Trees make love with a thousand others at the same time. Microfauna in our cells create communities and transportation systems. Communities have personalities. A forest is a single organism. Planets have consciousness. And they all sing together in harmonious celebration of life.

Places, even, do have souls. Small or great, gentle or fierce, nurturing or debilitating. Like all life, they have distinct and often strong personalities. They have auras, and energy bodies. They are touched and altered by our regard or disregard of them, and they are able to move our hearts and alter our live. They can enrich and nurture us, empower and connect us.

In their most powerful form, places connect us into, and allow us to coexist in, the non-material planes of existence as well as the material one. With them, we can individually or as a group expand our conscious presence into some of those other realms. Most simply put, making places with souls is the most central thing we must attend to in making buildings to shelter our lives and nurture our hearts.

We have been able to learn in recent years how to create places which can achieve such things. When all the pieces are right, everyone who enters such places breathes a sigh of relief and happiness. Their legs get rubbery and they want to sit down and just soak in the energy. Such places are filled with a powerful silence. They connect us to the rest of Creation. They nurture us with the breath of life. They are the soul of natural building and the goal to which it leads.

There are many aspects to places with soul. One of the most important is intention. All of our surroundings are like mirrors, reflecting back to us the intention that has gone into their making and use - the values of their makers. If made from greed, if made to deceive, they convey that. If they come from a meanness of soul or smallness of spirit, they infuse us with that essence. If made with love, with generosity, with honoring of all life, they support and evoke the same intentions in our own lives.

Clarity, strength, and rightness of intention also bring life force energy, or chi, into a place, with its ability to nurture our lives. The nature of our intention - whether in making or using a place - reflects that same energy back into our own lives, enhancing or weakening our own energy.

Even more, our intention towards a place can totally change the lives of others. Out of an intention of making a Head Start Center good for the kids using it, we asked ourselves what would make us feel best if we were kids coming in the door. "The smell of good food!" was the unanimous response. This lead us to put the kitchen right in the middle of the building, open to all the classrooms and entry. It works wonderfully, giving immediate pleasure and sense of rightness to those coming in the door. It also gives parents a place to stop for a cup of coffee and a chat, and to peek around the corner to see how their kids are doing. It allows the cook to be an extra friend and source of snacks and hugs for the kids, and a backup pair of eyes for the teachers.

What we didn't realize until later, is how much our intention totally changed working as a cook in this place! Cooking is usually a "back-room" job, tucked away out of sight in service areas near the loading dock. In contrast, putting the cook in the middle of everything, and in contact with everyone, made them a whole-person part of what went on!

An architect later asked what we would do if the center was larger and needed a bigger kitchen and loading dock. I looked at him and said, "You've just defined too big!" A change in intention - from wholeness and people-centeredness to optimizing mechanical function - underlies our gut feeling of wrongness when something becomes too big.

Just as aproaching building on the level of different intention can change the lives of people using our places, it can be empowering to the people making them. Materials that can be obtained locally, and which can be put together with "sweat equity" of the owners instead of bank loans encourage a sense of accomplishment for the owner/builders, provide opportunity for enrichment rather than standardization, and avoid the ecological costs of transportation and industrialized processing. The intention to empower brings forth a need for the natural building materials being rediscovered and refined today.

Even working with architects and professional builders, there are ways of empowering people doing the building, if we make that part of our intention. I began several years ago to add a "1% for Heart" section to my specifications, to pay for suggestions from the workers on improving the spirit of the building. It has ended up encouraging the workers to think creatively about everything they do in the building, resulting in many wonderful touches without any additional cost!

Without a clear and positive intention, ugly and uncomfortable buildings can be made using natural building materials just as easily as wonderful and satisfying ones. Having the goal of a place with a soul, we give direction and destination to our powerful engine of creativity in building. That intention guides not just choice of materials but the shapes and spaces created out of them, the means used to warm and cool the occupants, the connections made with the rest of nature and the values expressed in the building. Unconsciously or consciouisly, I think most of the people working with natural building materials are seeking that soul of place. And it is that intention as much as, and in combination with, the materials themselves that we respond to with an emotional sense of rightness.

Our deep and unconscious cultural values can channel even our most 'obvious' actions into results that are diametrically at odds with our original intentions. Attached solar greenhouses, invented for food production for low income families have metamorphized into hot tub sunrooms on the homes of the wealthy. Water conservation measures developed a generation ago during a California drought were immediately offset by increased water consumption from the proliferation of hot tubs. Twenty-five years after learning how to cut in half the energy and resource consumption in residential construction, we're now building houses that are twice as large for a population that is twice as large, and in the process consuming twice the total energy and resources as before!

Alternatives to conventional residential construction such as steel framing, straw bale, or earth construction might in the short run reduce the rate of logging our forests. They transfer our impacts onto other resources, which might give some short-term relief. But instead of enduring reduction in our ecological impacts, by itself it is more likely over time to leave us with twice the population, fewer resources, and fewer opportunities for releasing resources out of our operating patterns to finance a transition to sustainability.
1 The likelihood of major reduction in our material quality of life would then be far greater.

What we need to remember is that we seem inevitably to spend all the money we get - on one thing or another. Every dollar we save on materials or energy use in a building is somehow spent on something else - a bigger house, vacations, a new car, an education, or just paying the bills. As those same dollars
2ripple around the economy, they end up using up pretty much similar amounts of energy and resources as before. (The only apparent out seems to be earning less or investing in renewable resources.)

We need to focus our primary attention on the root causes of resource impacts - our cultural values of greed and growth.
3 Until we let loose of our irrational belief that geometric expansion of our numbers and our appetites can continue in a finite world, any "eco-building" is only a band-aid. True "eco-building" involves whether and how much we build and the values from which we work, as well as how we build.

It is possible to let go of the values of greed, growth, and violence. When we do, we discover many unexpected benefits. And once we do, we begin to see that better building techniques can mean lower costs, which can mean fewer hours of paid work we need to do and more freedom we can have to turn both our work and leisure into more rewarding patterns. It can release the resources to generously meet the needs of other people and other life, and to restore richness and love back into our surroundings.

I briefly mentioned chi, or life force energy, above relative to what our intention can do. Chi is another part of the soul of place that we are rediscovering today. A central part of the philosophy, healing arts, and operation of society in most cultures worldwide, it is today becoming acknowledged in our own culture. It underlies acupuncture, faith healing, feng shui, martial arts, yoga and a variety of other practices. Combined with intention, it forms the subtle energy template upon which our material world takes shape in its many wonderful variations. It is vital to supporting our physical as well as emotional and spiritual health. It is blocked by artificial building materials, intensive use of electromagentic devices, and cultural practices based on taking from others.

We're learning today that in addition to locating good natural power spots of chi to locate our buildings on, that chi energy can be called in, enhanced and worked with by individual intention and group ritual, and that it forms the glue which keeps a community healthy. We're discovering the connections with the spirit world inherent in a chi-based environment, and how places can be made specifically to work with individual and community chi and to act as access points to the spirit world.

The power which this energy and this connection to other dimensions of existence give our places is astounding. We see now how places like the Khmer capital of Angkor in Cambodia were designed to access energy and wisdom from the spirit world and convey it to all parts of the kingdom to enhance the well-being of the entire country.

The truly rampant diseases in our culture are not of the body, but are diseases of the spirit. They arise from lack of self-esteem and mutual respect, being of value to our community, or finding meaning in our lives. They find expression in rape, substance abuse, addictions, violence, crime, obesity, isolation, depression and dispair - things possible in any culture, epidemic in ours. They arise from the root violence in our deepest cultural values.

Healing diseases of the spirit requires that we nurture, not neglect, the emotional and spiritual well-being of all. This requires in our surroundings the honoring of the materials, the elements and forces of nature, the rhythms and cycles of life, and limiting our wants to not prevent the fulfillment of other forms of life. These are all possibilities inherent in natural building materials, used with reverence.

In a culture rooted in taking from others and keeping things to ourselves, the act of giving is a powerfully transformative deed. Expressed in the shaping and use of our surroundings, it becomes the embodiment of the spirit needed for sustainability as individuals and as a culture. Giving enriches places through what we discover can benefit other people or other life in the process of building. Shading, or giving the scent and beauty of flowers to adjacent public areas; allowing pedestrian ways to cut through large projects, giving low walls that can be seating, or facilities that can be used by the community when not needed by the primary users are all gifts.

Providing habitat for birds, spiders, bats, and butterflies; restoring creeks and watersheds, providing wildlife migration routes, are all forms of giving, as is restraining our building to allow room for the rest of nature to life unthreatened. A place may well achieve that generosity of spirit in surprising ways - like a Japanese room, which is generous in space because of its emptiness, not because of its size. Generosity is created out of the love and energy put into making. It gives the unexpected.

Another and wonderful form of giving is honoring or celebrating elements of nature and life in what we make. Honoring is a giving of respect. Celebrating is a giving of thanks. A building with a soul honors its surroundings, and the lives of materials which were given up to make its existence possible. We can honor the materials by allowing their history, beauty, and power to come through their use in ways that move our hearts. A building with a soul honors the skill, competence, and the sacredness of the work gone into its making. It acomplishes that honoring through transforming the work of building to develop and exercise - rather than minimize - skills, and by providing opportunity for creativity within the work.

A place with a soul can honor our inner resources as well as our material ones. It is amazing the wonderful places that can be created from will, courage, endurance, giving, love, curiousity, passion, joy, wit, wonder, gratitude and forgiveness (to name a few) rather than merely wood and stone. A place with a soul honors its users, like the Japanese placing a guest before a tokonoma, giving them a sense that they and their activities are of value. In respecting building tradition it honors the insights and wisdom gained by the past. By planting trees, or other means, it honors a hope for a future. It celebrates newness, age, death, creativity, and and its neighbors. It honors all life, and the power that begets it. It may honor our inner nature by removing the wall-to-wall mirrors in our bathrooms that bring us face to face every morning with our most rumpled and hung-over exteriors. It may honor and celebrate the sanctity of all Creation through the making of shrines and sacred places to acknowledge, focus, and make visible our holding things sacred.

A building with a soul fills primal psychic needs - for protection, for warmth, for companionship, for meaning. It enfolds and gives refuge and sanctuary to all who enter it. It welcomes us with water in the desert, a warm fire in the winter, shelter in the rain; food and fellowship everywhere. It moves our hearts, and enhances our chi. It helps us marshal our inner resources and stimulates us to use those resources for growth. It affirms sacredness and meaning in our lives and surroundings, and creates places for our hearts and minds as well as our bodies. A building with a soul draws on and connects its users to power extending beyond just the material world.

A building with a soul is enriched and given meaning through its connection with other things. It brings us into closer touch with each other, the rest of the world and the rhythms of nature. By opening our places to sunrise and moonset, it connects us to the daily and seasonal cycles of the sun, the moon, and the stars; to the beauty of rain, fog and snow; and to the visible and invisible universe. It adapts readily to changes in use and additions to its structure.

Every place has evolved distinct communities of life singularly tied to the specific qualities of that place which have evolved through the on-going testing of centuries. Until we learn to nestle our lives into those distinct ecological communities, to celebrate the specialness of snow and ice, of rain or dryness, the abundance or sparseness of life, or the change or changelessness that is characteristic of each different place, we remain as awkward outsiders. We stumble around foolishly - unintentionally disrupting, wasting, and destroying through our every act, while failing to receive the ease, reward and plenitude that lies in being an integral part of the wholeness of a place.

Taking part directly ourselves in building our places, bringing materials from local sources, learning the real costs of what we create and what we destroy, brings us in touch with that local community in ways impossible with power tools, transported materials, and professional design and construction. It teaches us directly, not intellectually, the importance of nurturing the health of all Creation, and how vitally important that is for the health of what lies on both sides of our skins.

A building with a soul fits its site and makes best use of it, making almost magic connections between location, relationships, and views. The arrangement and organization within it, outside it, and in connection with the life around it are apt. It fits its climate, its use and users, and the dreams that drive their society. It fits the capabilities, beauty and aptness of local materials, local ways of building, local traditions of design, and local patterns of living. It chooses local wisdom for dealing with its unique climatic conditions and ways of heating, cooling, ventilating and sheltering. It touches the spirit of where it is. It helps us make where we are paradise.

Because it is loved, a building with a soul often endures beyond the needs of its makers to become a gift to future generations. A cathedral lasting twenty generations, or a bridge lasting twenty centuries can give back far more than the effort put in their making. Such endurance immeasurably alters the per-generation cost of resources and work gone into creating our communities. Durability thus grants a generousity to the places we make that can be obtained in few other ways. A building with a soul needs to be as comfortable a thousand years in the past or future as it is today. It needs to be comfortable with the changes of time, neglect, and love - mellowing and becoming enriched rather than tarnished and tattered. There is a hoary strength and a nourishing peacefulness in the timeless qualities of a building that truly fits our hearts and spirits.

Yet everything does not benefit from lasting longer than its nature. Enbalming the bodies of our dead and keeping them isolated from returning as new richness of life impoverishes both our soils and our spirits. To scatter the ashes of our dead to nurture new life truly and incomparably ties us into the life of our home places.

A generation from now we may not wish that some of the things that we have recently created had lasted beyond their time and intention. It may be good that our homes or vehicles are durable. It may not be desireable that our foods or some of our building materials are preserved with poisons that linger and harm. In India, walking along a single country road we can be surrounded by the ghosts and ruins of untold centuries and dynasties of building. In Rome, a builder or an artist might be inspired by the accumulations of centuries of the greatest achievements of their society. Or they might find those achievements too lofty a yardstick against which to have their own work measured and not even begin to discover what they themselves could create anew.

It is good that some things last and that some things do not persist, making room for each generation and individual to forge anew the understandings and relationships of a meaningful life. The Inuit who throws away a scrimshaw carving once the empowering act of creation is finished, or the Balinese village or Indian pueblo that returns imperceptibly to the earth when its use is finished holds a rightness of duration and of material choice. Deeply knowing the nature and value of all the materials we work with, and finding the right duration for each of our creations is one of the roots of wisdom needed for being a true part of the ever evolving creation of life.

It is important, as we learn the wisdom of material choice and greater goals to which we assemble them into new creations, to follow far and deeply the web of significance of each of our choices, and to sink deep into the earth the roots of our own understanding. Today, for example, many counsel us to avoid all use of wood in construction because of its impact on our forests. And it may be truly wise to use less wood and to find more locally appropriate materials in lands where trees are not the dominant form of life.

But wood is a wonderful, natural material. Our demands today are limitless and beyond the capacity of any resource to satisfy. Reasonable demands can be supplied by wood, earth, stone or other materials which are appropriately obtained and appropriate to the use. And to not build with wood in our region, which is wood as far as the eye can see, feels not to be honoring the rightful and abundant life of the place.

Listen carefully to the assertions made by others today regarding "better" use of materials. Find the intentions that those assertions arise from, and which we inadvertantly accept and support when we choose to follow their lead. Some advocate, for example, the dominant use of "engineered" wood - wood I-beams made of pieces of chopped up trees glued together. While these may be excellent materials for certain applications, their broader implications can be more troubling. Compared to a beam and decking floor system, actual wood savings may be very little
4, and the beam and decking system (not necessarily old-growth) results in a finished floor and ceiling that retain and deepen their beauty over the years without requiring carpet, gypboard ceilings, or paint.

And total banning of the use of wood contains a deeper ill. Excluding it from our lives amounts to shunning - the harshest punishment conceiveable in some cultures. When a person is shunned, others totally ignore their existence and act as if they are not present. It is a true exclusion from community, and a deep punishment indeed. To ignore wood in this way, to shun it, to exclude it from our lives is to ensure its death not the restoration of its health and abundance.

To ensure its well-being, we need to to the opposite - not use it more, but use it differently - with honor. We need to use it in ways that reveal its wonder, to use it in ways that our hearts are moved by its wonderful nature, to use it in ways that we love it so much that we demand and ensure the survival and health of our forests.

Japan has built almost totally with wood for a thousand years, and has maintained the wellbeing of its forests. In Japan you can find doors made of a single slab of wood showing five hundred years of growth rings. You can find buildings with whole trees, not sawn timbers, used for posts and beams. You can find a veranda made with only two planks - sawn through the center of the tree so you walk the life and growth of the tree as you walk the length of the veranda. You find wood honored and celebrated, and used with love, care, and restraint.

A complete library on natural building materials would include books on using wood and other materials well - not just on the technical use of various materials but on using them with honor, joy and love!

A building with a soul takes a simple and modest route rather than a complicated one to fulfilling our needs. It lets nature do the work rather than machines. It finds simple answers to needs (with complex reasons why they work so well) rather than complicated high-tech ones. It knows that excess is as harmful as meagerness, and discriminates between things that harm and those that enhance our abilities, our relationships, and our lives.

Like a good servant, a building with a soul fulfills our needs without calling attention to itself. Its making and its use pay attention to important inner qualities rather than superficial outer ones. It demands little in the way of resources and attention for its creation, operation and maintenance.

It is filled with the emptiness of Lao Tsu's teacup, and reverberates with the peace of silence. It is free of unnecessary possessions and mechanical noises, and open to the joyful sounds of birdsong, laughter, and the sound of the wind. It draws back into shadow, letting the light and attention rest on its inhabitants and their partners in Creation. It has learned restraint and simplicity, and the ability to say, "No."

A building with a soul is consistent and arises out of a single, whole, and clear vision of the needs it can fill and the possibilities it can unfold. It reflects a lucid and unencumbered intention of its owner, designer, and builder. It has sought and found the heart of the institution it is sheltering, and found ways to honor and unfold that heart in its making. The issues it has addressed are fundamental and not frivolous, and the solutions it has created are sound.

Most simply put, a building with a soul is one that is built from love.

* * *

The value, to me, of natural building materials, is that they are means which can help us find and touch the soul of making of place. In honoring their individual and natural character, we reach out and contact other forms of life. With them, we can express our sensual love of the nature of living materials. Through them, we can learn and share the wider wisdom of nature and align our own intentions with that of the ongoing evolution of Creation. With them, and with the depth and power of intention they bring us home to, we can create joyful places with souls, places of power, gardens for our spirits and cities of passion.

With them, we are drawn into the inner processes of nature, and can rediscover ways to collaborate with natural patterns to warm and cool, shelter and connect, nurture and challenge our lives to achieve their greatest potentials. With them, we can relearn that simple and wise building can accomplish far more than complicated and isolated technologies. With them, we can begin to make safe places within which our own hearts can open, join with others, and flourish.

38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© 28 June 1998

1 There is an urgency to this issue. See, for example, L.F. Ivanhoe's "Future World Oil Supplies; there is a finite limit", World Oil, Oct., 1995 on global oil and population trends, and Richard Duncan's 1995 "The Energy Depletion Arch..." on U.S. and global oil depletion. Ivanhoe also interestingly touches on the falsification beginning to occur in government statistical studies as our denial of resource depletion becomes more acute.

2 Shifts from energy-intensive to less energy intensive expenditures do reduce energy use, but some alternatives, such as vacations, can be more energy-intensive. And second-tier expenditures narrow the gap further.

3 See my 1996 "Shedding A Skin That No Longer Fits" for more detail on the whys and the hows of letting go, and the wonderful but unfamiliar benefits of a sustainable society. "It's Oil Right, Folks! There's Good Times Ahead", 1996, (webpub @ surveys economic benefits, while "Unexpected Gifts - The Real Rewards of Sustainable Communities", 1996, (webpub @ r ) surveys the non-economic benefits of sustainability.

4 . A comparison of an "engineered wood" approach to long-rotation forestry is surprisingly revealing. I followed this thread out a few years ago in a study comparing 60-year and 240-year harvest cycles in Oregon forests. ("Improving the Economic Value of Coastal Forest Lands", IN CONTEXT issue 44,; or The long rotations ended up providing twice the timber per year (and better quality), nine times the net economic yield from the timber production, and a total of 30 to 40 times the overall economic value of the forests once impacts on fisheries, other forest products, and recreation were factored in. It als0 resulted in mature forests and old-growth trees.
Long-rotation management lets the trees produce wood continuously for 240 years, while the short-rotation alternative has three additional harvests in the same period. Each of those harvests lose 15 years of growth before new trees can produce merchantable timber. And each of those harvests account for large (but avoidable in the alternative) expenditures of work and money in sale preparation, harvesting, replanting, vegetation control, thinning and other management costs. Short-rotation forestry (and the associated choppped-wood products from immature trees) makes sense - only if you are the CEO of a timber company who has stripped all its lands for immediate profit and which is looking only for what will bring in the fastest new revenue, not the most.